Celebrating our links to a comic genius

TAKING THE LEAD Organisers of the PG Wodehouse Festival Mark Ringwood and Julian Sluggett. Picture: Sarah Standing (131267-5733)
TAKING THE LEAD Organisers of the PG Wodehouse Festival Mark Ringwood and Julian Sluggett. Picture: Sarah Standing (131267-5733)

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The voice of love seemed to call to me – but it was a wrong number, said the hapless Bertie Wooster in Very Good Jeeves. A line penned by the inimitable comic genius, PG Wodehouse.

The prolific writer made fun of the lives of the English upper class – which reflected his own – in more than 70 novels in 60 years.

But not many people realise that for a decade he had a home in Emsworth, in what was then a small fishing village. His time there gave inspiration to Lord Emsworth of the Blandings Castle novels, recently adapted for the BBC starring Timothy Spall.

Now Mark Ringwood and Julian Sluggett are putting together a festival in the town celebrating Plum – as he was known – with music, spoken word and some high-profile guests. The event, in October, was thought up over a couple of pints in The Stags Head, in Westbourne, the village which played host to Wemsfest which Mark organised last year.

Wemsfest went so well he is having a go at honouring Wodehouse – who died in 1975 aged 93 – in a way he hopes his fans will love.

He said: ‘It will be a long-overdue celebration of a wonderful man.

‘The festival will run over his birthday on October 15 and there’s always a lot going on for fans around that time.

‘Many go to America to celebrate it.

‘He was a prolific writer and we discovered he also wrote an incredible number of songs featured in Broadway musicals – some of them written in Emsworth.

‘We want to tap into all of that.

‘He wrote and wrote and wrote and we want to make him more accessible.’

Jeeves and Wooster were brought to a new generation with the brilliant early 1990s ITV adaptation starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

And it would be a dream come true for Mark if Fry or Laurie accepted his invitation to appear at the festival.

He said: ‘It is evident that he was inspirational to many famous writers today and there is even a prize named after him at Hay on Wye Literary Festival.

‘It would be a real coup to get Stephen Fry along as I know he is a huge fan.’

Julian, a playwright, is putting together a show featuring 15 of Wodehouse’s greatest musical numbers – set to be one of the highlights of the festival.

He said: ‘There is such a rich vein of writing. I love the humour, the crispness, the idiocy. It’s the lightness of it, especially considering most of the time it was written in pretty dire things were happening.

‘Somehow it helps to lighten the mood but I think his early work is certainly lighter than post the Second World War.

’He collaborated with the greatest for the musicals – George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.’

There will be a wide range of events taking place from October 11 to 19 at venues across Emworth, including the Brookfield Hotel, and a little further afield at Stansted Tea Rooms.

A venue has still to be decided for Anything Goes, the show of Wodehouse musical numbers.

There will be an exhibition of all his book covers and a dramatised reading of one of his novels.

The Olivier award-winning writer David Wood will be talking about the challenge of putting Wodehouse on the stage.

There is already a permanent Wodehouse exhibition at Emsworth Museum, in North Street, and administrator Lynda Newell will be leading a walk around Wodehouse’s old haunts – including his former home Threepwood.

The Brookfield Hotel will host a Wodehouse dinner while Fat Olives, in South Street, is looking after the education side with a Wodehouse-themed family dinner. The winner of a children’s funny stories competition will get the chance to read theirs at the event.

Mark and Julian are keen to hear from anyone who would like to get involved with the festival.

Email them at wemsfest@btinternet.com.

PLUM’S TIME IN EMSWORTH

PG Wodehouse moved to Emsworth in 1903 at the invitation of his friend Herbert Westbrook.

He stayed at Emsworth House School where Westbrook taught under the headmaster Baldwin King-Hall.

Characters from his time there appeared in many of his books.

He felt so at home in Emsworth a year later he took a lease on nearby Threepwood House, in Record Road, where there is now a commemorative plaque.

It was there he thought of Clarence Threepwood, or Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle. He remains one of his best-loved characters.

Wodehouse kept the house on for a decade, staying there when not in London or New York.

He built up a life-long friendship with Lillian Barnett, his housekeeper.

Letters between them are on display in Emsworth Museum, North Street, and span 60 years.

WARTIME ‘TREACHERY’

During the Second World War Wodehouse lived in Le Touquet, France, with wife Ethel.

It was a move to avoid paying double tax to the UK and America because of his enormous success on both sides of the pond.

The couple refused to move despite the threat of the encroaching Germans and, in 1940, he was interned as an enemy alien.

He was taken, eventually, to Tost – formerly part of Germany but now in Poland.

His American fans tried to find him and petitioned the Germans for his release.

At that stage they were not involved in the war.

The Germans saw it as a propaganda opportunity to win favour in the US.

They persuaded Wodehouse to broadcast humorous stories from the camp to reassure his American fans that he was okay.

It is believed he complied through naïveté.

But it was seen by the British as treachery and there was an outcry in Britain.

He was released by the Germans just short of his 60th birthday and stayed in Paris where he was interrogated by Major Cussen who concluded Wodehouse’s actions were innocent and he was used by the Germans.

Despite this the couple sailed to the US in 1943 and never set foot in Europe again.

LIFE And TIMES

SIR Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881.

His father Henry was a British judge in Hong Kong.

Between the ages of three and 15 he was packed off to boarding school and saw his parents for a total of just six months.

By the time Wodehouse was 18 money was tight for the family and, instead of following in his brother’s footsteps and heading to Oxford University, he joined the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

But his writing career soon began with pieces for Punch, Vanity Fair and The Express.

He quit the bank in 1902 and made a handsome living from writing.

On a trip to New York in 1914 he met and married widow Ethel Rowley.

The couple never had children together but Wodehouse took on Ethel’s daughter Leonora who died in 1944 following a routine operation.

He was left distraught over her death as the two were very close.

He went through a number of court cases trying to stop the ‘double tax’ on his earnings from both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1955 he became an American citizen but was still knighted by the Queen in January 1975, just a month before he died.